Do you remember when you first started to feel separate from other people?
When did you first feel the need to express your inner desires, follow your interests, or live in your own unique way?
Maybe it was as a young child or as a teenager. Or maybe you felt it most when you moved into young adulthood.
All of us will go through a period of life where we begin to desire to be more of an individual.
This is the process of individuation.
Individuation is a term that has become popular in psychology, especially due to the work of Carl Jung, the founder of Analytical Psychology.
What is individuation? Today it is used to describe the process of children becoming independent from their parents and moving into adult life. But the individuation process is also an important part of becoming a whole, authentic person.
A definition of individuation, according to the American Psychological Society is:
n. 1. generally, the physiological, psychological, and sociocultural processes by which a person attains status as an individual human being and exerts himself or herself as such in the world.
Individuation is a critical process during our development. Where we assert our own genuine, independent identity and establish a cohesive sense of self. The individuation process enhances our mental health as we listen more to our inner voice,
Of course, the individuation process doesn’t end once a person reaches adulthood.
Individuation is a lifelong process, and your sense of self will continue to adapt and grow as you have new experiences, new desires, and discover new layers to yourself.
In this article, we will attempt to answer the question ‘what is individuation?’ and how the individuation process can help us be more authentic in life.
Why Is Individuation Important?
Throughout life, people are prone to losing touch with certain aspects of their true selves.
For many different reasons, we may suppress our true self or not listen to our inner voice.
Through individuation, we are able to integrate our identity with new learning and experiences that we gain throughout life.
As a person individuates, they gain a clearer sense of self that is separate from their parents, friends, peers, colleagues, and the general world around them.
Carl Jung used the term “individuation” extensively in his work on personality development.
According to Jung:
“One cannot individuate as long as one is playing a role to oneself; the convictions one has about oneself are the most subtle form of persona and the most subtle obstacle against any true individuation.”
Moving Past The ‘Persona’
Every person has different versions of themselves that they display to the world.
We are one person around our family, a different person among friends. We act differently in a role at work than we do when we are a customer in a store.
This playing of roles is normal and healthy, but there is a tendency to start to see ourselves as the role we play. This is called the persona.
The origin of this Latin word goes back to the masks worn by actors in antiquity.
The mask, or persona, looks like ourselves, but it is largely influenced by the outer world. It is a kind of compromise between the individual and society.
As Jung says, “The persona is a complicated system of relations between the individual consciousness and society, fittingly enough a kind of mask, designed on the one hand to make a definite impression upon others, and, on the other, to conceal the true nature of the individual.”
Unlike Sigmund Freud, who believed that the unconscious mind was mostly a place for hidden sexual desires which drive all our behaviors, Jung believed that what motivates and influences behavior is a psychic energy or life force.
According to Jung, the desire to be an authentic individual was driven by the unconscious mind attempting to share itself openly and honestly with the world.
We all know when we are being inauthentic and acting as we think people want us to. Sometimes we feel it’s necessary to fit in, especially in social or work situations.
However, as a person matures and desires to become more authentic, the removal of the persona leads them to show their true desires and behaviors in the world.
Why Do We Desire Individuation?
The purpose of individuation is to bring about wholeness in the individual.
It is a letting go of the personas that we create and an integration of the more subconscious, hidden parts of ourselves in the world.
‘Wholeness’ suggests that one is able to fulfill one’s purpose by using their talents and potential.
But it also means you are able to be authentic in the world, thereby avoiding using only a persona or social mask.
Of course, as we start to individuate, we can risk losing the approval of our family, peers, and even society at large. Fortunately, we live in a much more tolerant time than ever before, so the need and desire for individuation is easier to pursue.
As Jung declared, “Human nature has an invincible dread of becoming more conscious of itself.”
The desire to live and act authentically is something we can’t ignore if we want to become our best selves.
In the next section, we will look at how you can begin to move past the persona and integrate the different parts of yourself to become more authentic through the individuation process.
How Do You Begin to Individuate?
You’ve probably heard the advice to ‘be yourself’ from someone in your life.
But the problem with this commonplace advice is that nobody seems to know exactly how to do it. The term individuation could more commonly be explained as ‘being yourself,’ but that doesn’t necessarily make it easier to do it.
To find out what is truly individual in ourselves, a lot of deep reflection is required.
You can’t figure out who you truly are in a few hours or even a few days. It can take many years of experimentation and learning to listen to your true self.
Here are four steps to begin to individuate and become more authentic:
Seek Privacy and Solitude
During adolescence, many people want more privacy. The common trope of the teenager brooding in their bedroom isn’t just for the movies and TV. It is part of the process of becoming an individual.
To truly tune into your authentic self, you need time and space from the world. Time alone can help to remove the persona you commonly display to others.
Taking time to yourself – whether it’s taking a walk, a long drive, journaling, or simply sitting alone in your own space – is a helpful first step.
When you become comfortable being alone it allows you to better express yourself with others. It encourages you to listen more to your active imagination, delve into your dreams, and discover the things that matter most to you.
The next step in becoming individuated is to start to question the ‘norms’ that are all around you.
Once again, we see this commonly in young adults and teenagers who may question the status quo. But it is really a process that can be undertaken at any time in life.
When desiring to be more of an individual, people may rebel against their family rules or cultural norms. For example, if their parents or peers are conservative Christians, they may begin to develop an interest in Buddhism or Atheism. They may reject conservatism to embrace a more liberal lifestyle. Or they may do the reverse.
The value of questioning norms is that you can choose what to keep and what to reject. Just because those around you have chosen a particular way of thinking or acting, it doesn’t mean you need to continue it as well.
Change Your Appearance or Environment
A very simple yet effective way that people become individuals is by changing their appearance. By choosing a fashion style that is different from peers, family, or others around them, a person can find a way to stand out and express themselves.
All of us are influenced by the culture around us and conform to what is conventionally acceptable. While you may not want (or be able) to dress completely different than those around you, it can help to make adjustments that make you feel unique.
The same goes for your environment. A simple change of furniture, decorations, or style of your home environment can boost your sense of individualism. Improving and enhancing your room (or home) is an excellent way to experience the empowering feeling of becoming a unique, empowered person.
Listen To Your Unconscious
Perhaps the most difficult part of becoming an individual is to integrate your unconscious desires and let them guide you.
All of us have tendencies, quirks, and whims that we try to curb or hide from the world.
Yet these aspects of our self that are often driven by our unconscious can help us find more of our authentic self. It just takes the courage to be more open about them in the world.
How can you begin to listen to your unconscious?
Try paying attention to your daydreams, your unexpected emotions, your strong intuitions, and your spontaneous whims.
If you are attracted to or interested in something, take time to learn more about it. If you feel compelled to try something or experience something, then give yourself permission to explore it.
Not everything you try will be in line with your authentic self, but it will lead you closer if you listen to your desires.
Permission To Be You
Understanding and embracing our true self is not easy.
The process of individuation is a normal part of growth and development. Very often, we struggle in life when we feel we can’t be who we truly are.
Recognizing the importance of individuation and growing our authentic self is an important step to contributing in a bigger way to the world.
While we all need to share and negotiate with everyone else in the world, we can still make authentic expression a priority.
Perhaps, Jung summarized it best when he said, “Individuation is to divest the self of false wrappings.”
When we remove the false wrappings that we think others expect of us, we will discover one of the healthiest and most rewarding ways to live.